Sneakers, Page 3Stephen King
"Yes. Because the briefcase was gone."
Tell looked at Georgie. He could see this, too.
"When the cops came and took the guy off the toilet, they found his left hand in the b-bowl."
"Oh," Tell said.
Georgie looked down at his plate. There was still half a sandwich on it. "I guess maybe I'm f-f-full," he said, and smiled uneasily.
On their way back to the studio, Tell asked, "So the guy's ghost is supposed to haunt ... what, that bathroom?" And suddenly he laughed, because gruesome as the story had been, there was something comic in the idea of a ghost haunting a men's room.
Georgie smiled. "You know people. At first that was what they said. When I was first working with Paul, guys would tell me they'd seen him in there. Not all of him, just his sneakers under the stall door."
"Just his sneakers."
"Yeah. That's how you'd know they were making it up, or imagining it, because You only heard it from guys who knew him when he was alive. From guys who knew he wore sneakers."
Tell, who had been an eleven-year-old kid living in rural Pennsylvania when the murder happened, nodded. They had arrived at the building. As they walked up the hall toward the elevators, Georgie said, "But you know how fast the turnover is in this business. Here today and gone tomorrow. I doubt if there's anybody working here who was working there then, except maybe for a few j-janitors, and none of them would have bought from the guy.
"And he was probably one of those guys who you never even noticed if you didn't buy from him."
"Yeah. Unless you were a c-cop. So you hardly ever hear the story anymore, and no one ever says they see the guy. "
They were at the elevators.
"Georgie, why do you stick with Paul?"
Although Georgie lowered his head and the tips of his cars turned a bright red, he did not sound really surprised at this abrupt shift in direction. "He takes care of me."
Do you sleep with him, Georgie? Something else he couldn't say. Wouldn't, even if he could. Because Georgie would tell him.
Tell, who could barely bring himself to talk to strangers and never made friends (except maybe for today), suddenly hugged Georgie Ronkler. Georgie hugged him back. Then they stepped away from each other, and the elevator came, and the mix continued, and the following evening, at six-fifteen, after the wrap and Janning's curt goodbye (he left with Georgie trailing behind him), Tell stepped into the third-floor men's room to get a look at the owner of the white sneakers.
Talking with Georgie, he had remembered what he had forgotten. Something so simple you learned it in the first grade. Telling was only half. Showing was the other half.
There was no lapse in consciousness this time, nor any sensation of fear ... only that slow steady deep drumming in his chest. All his senses had been heightened. He smelled chlorine, the pink disinfectant cakes in the urinals, old farts. He could see minute cracks in the paint on the wall, and chips on the pipes. He could hear the hollow click of his heels as he walked toward the first stall.
The sneakers were now almost buried in the corpses of dead flies.
There were only one or two at first. Because there was no need for them to die until the sneakers were there, and they weren't there until I saw them.
"Why me?" he asked clearly in the stillness.
The sneakers didn't move and no voice answered.
"I didn't know you, I never met you, I don't even take the kind of stuff you sold. So why me?"
One of the sneakers twitched. There was a papery rustle of dead flies. Then the sneaker-it was the mislaced one-settled back.
Tell pushed the stall door open. One hinge shrieked in properly gothic fashion. And there it was. Mystery guest, sign in please, Tell thought.
The mystery guest sat on the john with one hand dangling limply in his crotch. He was much as Tell had seen him in his dreams, with this difference: there was only the single hand. The other arm ended in a dusty maroon stump to which several more flies had adhered. It was only now that Tell realized he had never noticed Sneaker's pants (and didn't you always notice the way lowered pants bunched up over the shoes if you happened to glance under a bathroom stall? something helplessly comic, or just defenseless, or one on account of the other?). He hadn't because they were up, belt buckled, fly zipped. They were bell-bottoms. Tell tried to remember when bells had gone out of fashion and couldn't.
Above the bells Sneakers wore a blue chambray workshirt with an appliqued peace symbol on each flap pocket. He had parted his hair on the right. Tell could see dead flies in the part. From the hook on the back of the door hung the topcoat of which Georgie had told him. There were dead flies on its slumped shoulders.
There was a grating sound not entirely unlike the one the hinge had made. It was the tendons in the dead man's neck, Tell realized. Sneakers was raising his head. Now he looked at him, and Tell saw with no sense of surprise whatever that, except for the two inches of pencil protruding from the socket of the right eye, it was the same face that looked out of the shaving mirror at him every day. Sneakers was him and he was Sneakers.
"I knew you were ready," he told himself in the hoarse toneless voice of a man who has not used his vocal cords in a long time.
"I'm not," Tell said. "Go away,"
"This is where you're supposed to be," Tell told Tell, and the Tell in the stall doorway saw circles of white powder around the nostrils of the Tell sitting on the john. He had been using as well as pushing, all right. He had come in here for a short snort, someone had opened the stall door, and stuck a pencil in his eye. But who committed murder by pencil? Maybe only someone who committed the crime on ...
"Oh, call it impulse," Sneakers said in his hoarse and toneless voice.
And Tell - the Tell standing in the stall doorway - understood a great many things all at once. This had been no premeditated murder, as Georgie had seemed to think. The killer hadn't looked under the stall, and Sneakers hadn't flipped the latch. Or maybe ...
"It was broken," the thing finished in its toneless husk of a voice.
Broken. Yes. The killer had been holding a pencil in one hand, probably not as a weapon but only because sometimes you wanted something to hold, a cigarette, a bunch of keys, a pen or pencil to fiddle with. Tell thought maybe the pencil had been in Sneakers's eye even before either of them knew the killer was going to put it there. Then, probably because the killer had also been a customer who knew what was in the briefcase, he had closed the door again, left the building, got well, got something . . .
"He went to a hardware store five blocks over and bought a hacksaw," Sneakers said in his toneless voice, and Tell suddenly realized it wasn't his face anymore; it was the face of a man who looked about thirty, and vaguely Indian. Tell's hair was gingery-blonde, and so had this man's been at first, but now it was a coarse and shineless black.
"Sure," Tell said. "He got it in a bag and came back, didn't he? If somebody had already found you, there'd be a big crowd around the door. That's the way he'd figure. Maybe cops already, too. If no one looked excited, he'd go on in and get the briefcase.
"He tried to cut the chain first," the harsh voice said. "When that didn't work, he cut off my hand."
They looked at each other. Tell suddenly realized he could see the toilet scat and the dirty white tiles of the back wall behind the corpse ... the corpse that was, finally, becoming a ghost.
"You know now?" it asked Tell. "Why it was you?"
"Yes. You had to tell someone."
"Telling is shit," the ghost said, and then smiled a smile of such sunken malevolence that Tell was struck by horror. "The only things that matter are showing ... and eating. Eating would have been better."
It was gone.
Tell looked down and saw the flies were gone, too.
He needed to go to the bathroom. Suddenly he needed to go to the bathroom very badly.
He went into the stall, closed the door, lowered his pants, and sat down. He went home that nigh
t whistling. A regular man is a happy man, his father used to say.
Tell supposed that was true.
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